The heart of the natter: BT wants men to make longer, more emotional phone calls, reports Hester Lacey

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Indy Lifestyle Online
'WHY can't men be more like women?' asks one of the new newspaper ads in BT's latest campaign. How, exactly? By spending more time on the phone enjoying 'the simple joys of talking' says the blurb, tastefully deployed over two stark naked telephoners. But while he is standing up and getting straight to the point, she is cosily settled for a good long natter.

These are tasters for a full- scale assault - BT is launching the most extensive ad campaign in Britain tomorrow. Television viewers will be introduced to yuppie Alex, who is breaking his elderly mum's heart by only ever calling up for a sullen 30 seconds at a time on his mobile.

His sweet and bubbly wife, however, will rattle on merrily for ages to the poor old dear about her newest frock - and luckily Bob Hoskins is on hand to point out the error of Alex's ways. Bob, explains the spokesman for BT ad agency Abbott Mead Vickers, is a 'bloke's bloke'. And blokes, even the most blokeish and uncommunicative, are BT's target.

The company has changed tack since Beattie terrorised her family over the wires. Recent television ads have shown dads phoning grown-up sons for tender sessions of reminiscence, and male friends getting together for hearty bonding. Now BT is attacking men for not being chatty enough.

'Communication' is the campaign's keyword. Any old tittle-tattle counts, as long as it's over the phone. Gossip is golden, is the message - and men must learn how to do it.

The telephone has traditionally been feminine territory. Switchboard operators from the 1880s onwards were young women, trained in voice production and forbidden to use 'uncouth and abrupt expressions' to impatient subscribers.

Being a telephonist was considered a genteel occupation for a young lady. Every Woman's Encyclopaedia recommended the profession as 'healthy' - 'the action of stretching,' it explained, 'develops the chest and arms and turns thin and weedy girls . . . into strong ones.'

At the turn of the century, when the phone industry was in its infancy, it was rare to have a private line; but once telephone companies recognised the immense potential market amongst women at home, the domestic telephone took off. Margot Asquith had the first phone installed at 10 Downing Street in 1908. In 1914 Vera Brittain chattered happily to her wartime sweetheart - and received the news of his death in the trenches by phone the following year.

The Bright Young Things of the 1920s were especially enthusiastic chatters, causing drama critic George Jean Nathan to thunder that the telephone was responsible for 'young women's increasingly loose manners and looser habits. It permits a girl to lie in her bed and to talk with a man lying in his bed; it permits her, half- clothed, to talk with him a moment after its ring has made him hop nude out of the bath tub.' Marilyn Monroe called the telephone her 'best friend'.

Early male phone-phobics, however, included Joseph Conrad, who insisted friends communicate by telegram or letter. Franz Kafka found phone conversations 'impossible to understand'. Other confirmed phone-haters included William Morris, J M Barrie, Kipling, A E Housman, Evelyn Waugh, and Aldous Huxley - who always made his wife take messages.

BT's research shows that this gap in the market is still to be plugged. They claim that while 64 per cent of women think nothing of spending an hour on the phone, only four per cent of men can go on that long; 78 per cent of men but only five per cent of women consider they are 'short and to the point' on the phone.

But surely showing women jabbering on about frocks to their mother-in-law won't encourage men to pick up the phone - in fact quite the reverse? 'We know that by supporting women we can convert men,' explained a BT spokesman. This boils down to promoting the idea that rabbitting away for hours is a social skill to be cherished and nurtured. Large posters showing a glass of beer will convey to the blokes that half an hour's chat costs about the same as half a pint.

But BT may still have its work cut out persuading men to love the phone. Dr Guy Fielding, head of the Department of Communication at Queen Margaret College in Edinburgh, agrees with BT's research. His five-year study of telephone habits has revealed that around 15 per cent of the population suffer from what he has named 'telephone apprehension' - and many more men are afflicted than women.

Dr Fielding puts this down to a combination of factors. 'Women are better communicators, more tuned to pace, delivery and tone, so they are better able to cope with the phone. Men's use tends to be instrumental - to complete a task, set up a meeting - women do that too, but they also use the phone for socio-emotional reasons.'

Chewing the fat over the phone may look like mere casual chit-chat - but in fact it is a vital component of life as we know it, suggests Dr Fielding. 'Women's phone calls maintain the social fabric, keep the community and the family together. It's very demanding, very important, but undervalued in our society.' He adds, rather convincingly: 'One cynical interpretation is that men are scared of the phone because it gets them out of a lot of work - remembering birthdays, checking on elderly parents, arranging dinner parties.' (Alex's wife and her mother-in-law, in the new BT ad, spring to mind.)

Dr Leslie Haddon, senior research fellow in media studies at Sussex University, agrees: 'Women use the phone more - the act of phoning is the act of maintaining networks and families.' It seems, however, that women only get lumbered with the duty calls when they are part of a partnership. Teenagers of both sexes are happy to spend hours on the phone.

'One family had their phone installed in the cupboard under the stairs where it was really uncomfortable and freezing cold,' recalls Dr Haddon, 'but their teenager simply took pillows in to make his long calls.'

However, not all men are thrown into a panic by the thought of the occasional lengthy chat. Jonathan Giddens, a graphic designer, works in London, while his wife Helen, a sales director, frequently travels to other parts of the country. 'If we didn't talk on the phone, we wouldn't still be married,' says Jonathan, who thinks nothing of notching up an hour and a half calling Helen. 'When she's away, we speak every evening.' What do they talk about? 'Nothing amazing, just what we've been up to during the day.'

Dr Fielding's research paper 'The Use of Communication Media to Maintain Intimate Relationships During Brief and Extended Non-Permanent Separations' claims that there can in fact be definite benefits to relationships conducted down the lines - not least that the other person is obliged to listen carefully and concentrate on the conversation. He suggests propping an absent sweetheart's photo by the phone during the call - and warns 'don't expect your phone calls to move the earth. It's the fact that you're talking that matters'.

Working from home means that the telephone can be a vital link to the outside world. 'I go on and on, and I'm proud of it,' says writer Richard Matthews. 'If the phone is used as a telegram machine it's abrupt and unfriendly. And so many people have answerphones for short messages - it's so rare when you get hold of the person you want to speak to, it's like meeting up with them.'

He finds that chatting on the phone is the equivalent of meeting for a drink - without the effort of getting to the pub. 'Or you can watch TV with someone, without having to go round to their house. Top of the Pops is particularly good fun.'

Some rare, brave men will even speak to their families without being dragged kicking and screaming to the receiver. 'My wife and I ring both our sons and our daughter at least once a week,' says one enthusiastic caller, old enough to remember the days before direct dialling was universal. 'And I call my brother often, to get the news from his neck of the woods. We are always on for at least half an hour. Though that might be because we're both Yorkshire men and we speak slowly.'

(Photograph omitted)